As It Happens

Writer wins World Poetry Slam with moving tribute to her mother

Sudan-born Emi Mahmoud is the winner of the World Poetry Slam, after she nearly pulled herself out of the competition because of the death of her grandmother.
Sudan born Emi Mahmoud is the winner of the World Poetry Slam competition. It's a title she could have missed out on, when she nearly pulled herself out of the competition because of a family emergency. (Román Castellanos-Monfil)

At just 22-years-old, Emtithal Mahmoud has seen a lot of struggle. Born in Sudan, her family fled the war-torn country when she was just a young girl and settled in the United States. Mahmoud copes with her experiences by putting them to paper. And now she's won the the top prize at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship.

Mahmoud made it to the final stage of the competition after she delivered a powerful poem about her mother. But her mother was not there to witness the performance. She was in Darfur to attend the funeral of Mahmoud's grandmother.

"The morning of the competition, when I was leaving, I found out that she had passed away and, because of that, I almost didn't compete," Mahmoud tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Emtithal Mahmoud performing at "Noche Dorada—Investing in our Communities through Education" in 2014 at Yale University. (Román Castellanos-Monfil)

Mahmoud says that her mother was planning to visit her ailing grandmother in Darfur and take her to Cairo for treatment. The news of her grandmother's death came as a shock and left Mahmoud unsure of whether she should compete.

"We had to re-arrange everything. We had to unpack the suitcases that were for my grandmother and we had to remove the wheelchair and the medicine and the new dresses that my mother had bought her and the honey. My people think that there are a lot of healing properties in honey."

Mahmoud eventually decided to take part in the competition. In the end, she was inspired to write a poem about her late grandmother for one of her final performances.

"I wrote a poem about my grandmother that talks about medicine and how it has failed us time and time again, in the times of the war, in the war zone," Mahmoud explains.

"She seemed to be impervious to any kind of damage, so the line in there that sums everything up was, 'When the cancer comes for everything the war has left behind,' and to me everything the war left behind was my grandmother."

Emtithal Mahmoud with her championship trophy after the ceremony at the IWPS final stage. (Lauretta Jenkins)

But Mahmoud says the moving poem about her mother was just as difficult to write.

"I was just thinking, 'How can I find the words to describe this incredible woman who has made me everything that I am?'" Mahmoud explains. "My mother taught me how to be a woman and how to carry on when everything is trying to tear you down."

Although her mother was unable to be there, Mahmoud says the response from the crowd was inspiring.

"It was incredible to see people in celebration of my mother and the women in my family," Mahmoud explains. "They started a standing ovation not even all the way through the poem and just kept going until the end. I had to actually strain to continue the poem."

To hear the full interview, including Mahmoud perform part of her poem 'Mama,' please click on the Listen audio link above.